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They lost their son. Then they started an agency to help addicts navigate treatment

Ryan Hudson, of Williamsville, did what a lot of opioid addicts do. He relapsed.

After a year and a half without drugs, Hudson started using again four months ago – but not for long.

He went to Save the Michaels of the World's "House of Hope and Community Resources" on Delaware Avenue, where a staffer instantly got him into a treatment program.

That's a sharp contrast to what happened when Hudson first confronted his drug problem in 2015, when he found it "nearly impossible" to navigate the drug treatment system and had to wait three weeks to get into a rehab center.

"Without Save the Michaels, I never would have gotten into treatment last year," said Hudson, 30. "They get you into treatment immediately."

Hudson's experience shows that Save the Michaels has grown beyond its roots as a grieving couple's two-person effort to save others from the sort of addiction that claimed the life of their son.

Founded by Avi and Julie Israel of Buffalo, Save the Michaels transitioned last year into an agency for addicts in need as well as their families, designed to help them navigate a confusing system and get treatment quickly – and to help people stay off drugs for the long term.

"What Avi is doing is certainly critical in terms of education, intervention, support of families and assisting people who are seeking treatment," said Anne D. Constantino, president and CEO of Horizon Health Services, the largest provider of outpatient mental health and substance abuse services in Western New York. "He's been very, very helpful to the treatment system."

The Save the Michaels effort seems to be working, too. The new agency reports that so far, it appears that far fewer of its clients are relapsing than would usually be the case.

"What Avi and Julie Israel have done is nothing short of extraordinary," said State Sen. Tim Kennedy, a Buffalo Democrat who recently helped get the agency $425,000 in state funds to expand its operations.

State Sen. Chris Jacobs, a Buffalo Republican who also helped with the funding, agreed.

"Because of what Save the Michaels is doing, people are able to go into long-term recovery," said Jacobs, who hopes the agency can serve as a statewide model for how to do drug treatment right. "They're kind of filling a missing link in the system."

Ryan Hudson became addicted to painkillers after a serious motorcycle accident in 2013. He found "Save the Michaels of the World" during a brief relapse four months ago and was so moved by the help he received that he now works for the organization as a certified peer recovery coach and peer advocate. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

More than anything else, Save the Michaels serves as the addict's advocate, helping people in the most desperate circumstances to navigate their way through a treatment system that's overloaded with cases.

It's always been a difficult system to navigate, as Avi and Julie Israel learned in the most painful of ways in 2011. Their son Michael suffered from Crohn's disease for years. That led to depression and a dependence on painkillers and his parents' struggle to get him help – and eventually to Michael's suicide at the age of 20.

Devastated by Michael's death, the Israels took to changing the system that failed their son. They traveled again and again to Albany and Washington to fight for more resources and better programs to fight opioid abuse. And they became something of a one-stop shop for people seeking help with a loved one's addiction.

Amid an unprecedented opioid epidemic, it became too much for two people to do. So the Israels, who operate Save the Michaels as a nonprofit, started hiring staff last year and serving patients and their families.

The agency has helped 228 addicts so far, as well as 300 families.

BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York is one of the reasons for that. While helping get its clients into drug treatment, the huge insurer refers them to Save the Michaels for additional support services.

"To have that voice in the community to help families deal with this and to help them through the process is, we think, very valuable," said Kyle Rogers, a spokesman for the insurer.

Once an addict or an addict's loved one calls Save the Michaels, "we meet you where you're at," Avi Israel said.

Knowing that many people don't know how to begin to navigate the system aimed at treating drug addicts, Save the Michaels does that hard work for anyone who needs it, finding the addict a treatment facility with open space – even if it's hours away – and driving the addict there.

"There's plenty of beds in New York" in facilities that treat addicts, Avi Israel said. "What gets in the way is bureaucracy ... What we do is cut through the bureaucracy."

Save the Michaels also works to persuade the reluctant addict to pursue treatment, using other successful clients as examples and relying on the persuasive powers of case managers such as Janet Gaskin.

"This woman could talk the devil into going into treatment," Avi Israel said.

A room at the agency's offices that looks like a living room is where Save the Michaels employees meet with families suffering the emotional weight of dealing with an addict.

"The people who don't get treatment are often the families," Israel said. "They're suffering. The family gets addicted to the addict."

What's more, "they're begging you to save their son, to save their daughter," Julie Israel noted.

Janet Gaskin, case manager at Save the Michaels of the World, in her office. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Once an addict is in treatment, Save the Michaels case managers call the addict just about every day to see how things are going.

And while still in treatment, the agency's clients get connected with a recovery coach.

"They work sort of as a life coach," encouraging recovering addicts as they start their new, clean lives, said Molly Sanders Clauss, the agency's vice president.

There's another space at Save the Michaels that looks like a classroom. That's where recovering addicts meet in groups to discuss improving their lives and where families do the same. The agency even offers yoga classes to help addicts move on to something better than what they've lived through.

It's all part of what the Israels see as a holistic approach to addiction recovery. Their agency doesn't offer drug treatment itself, instead providing the connective tissue and emotional support addicts and their families need to make it through the recovery process.

"There are some wonderful treatment facilities, but when you're there, you become a statistic," Avi Israel said. "At Save the Michaels, you're somebody. We build up your self-confidence. We give you the tools to move on."

That's certainly what happened to Ryan Hudson. Falling into an addiction to painkillers after a 2013 motorcycle accident that left him in a coma for two months, Hudson got clean for a while before his relapse last year.

But the treatment program he then found through Save the Michaels gave him another chance, as did the follow-up work he did through the agency.

"They get you to believe in yourself, to believe that anything is possible," he said.

Hudson got the Israels and everyone at Save the Michaels to believe in him.

Seeing how well he was doing, they got him training to be a recovery coach. He started his new job at Save the Michaels this month.

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